Friday, December 11, 2009

The Faces of Brad Parks

Tuesday I reviewed Brad Parks' debut novel, FACES OF THE GONE. It's an amazing debut, and so of course I had to go out and nag Brad to talk with me one on one. Many of you commented on how excited I was about FACES OF THE GONE and you were going to check it out, so I thought you would also enjoy getting to know Brad a little better. He was kind enough to take time out of his schedule right before his book release to answer my questions. I'm absolutely tickled to be able to share our chat with you.

If you read the blog regularly, you already know a bit about Brad from when he shared his six-word memoir. He's a former journalist; he spent many years covering sports and then investigative reporting. He previously lived in New Jersey, he now resides in Virgina, is a full-time writer and full-time dad.

And I'll quit my blabbing and share this fantastic interview with you. Here he is...Brad Parks.

Q: Your first job writing was at the age of 14, covering the local high school girls’ basketball team. Were you assigned to this or did you have a girlfriend on the team or what got you started with girls’ basketball? Would you say you learned any lessons (about writing) then that you still carry with you today?

Brad: I was a short, fat freshman with braces. I only wish I had a girlfriend on the team. Basically, I saw an ad in the paper saying they needed a sportswriter. I’m quite sure I was the only one to apply for the job, so they gave it to me. The team had been horrible for years. Yet, somehow, that was the season the Ridgefield High School girls basketball team started winning. The more it won, the more attention my writing got. And I found pretty quickly I enjoyed getting attention for my writing, and that what made it meaningful to me is when it provoked some reaction out of the readers, even if the reaction was just to be pleased I put their daughter’s name in the paper. To this day, that’s what I strive for – to move readers (to laughter, to tears, to head-scratching, or whatever) with words.

Q: You spent a good amount of time covering sports, but ultimately switched to news. What prompted the switch? Then what did you miss most about sports when you switched?

Brad: Why switch? That’s easy: 100 nights a year in a hotel. Nothing against Mr. Marriott, but I just didn’t feel like spending that much time with him. My wife and I wanted to start a family and I didn’t want her pointing to my picture on the mantel every time my kids asked, “Where’s Daddy?” It also seemed like a good career move. I had been doing sports my entire writing life at that point and figured having something else on the resume might be nice. Turns out it was a good decision – I never could have written FACES OF THE GONE without the experience of having worked on news side. Did I miss stuff about sports? Sure. The games were fun. The big events brought a lot of energy to my writing. And the storytelling was great. But I had gotten my fill of sports – Super Bowls, Olympics, World Series, etc. – and left without looking back.
Q: There are obviously major differences between writing journalistically and writing novel-length fiction. What from your journalism career do you think helped you the most starting out as a novelist? Then likewise, what would you say, if anything, did you have to re-learn or overcome that a non-journalist may not have had to deal with?

Brad: I’ve always felt the key to writing well is to write poorly first, if that makes any sense at all. And journalism certainly gave me the chance to do a lot of very poor writing. The simple reality of the newspaper business is that, for as much as I wanted everything that appeared underneath “By Brad Parks” to be outstanding examples of my compositional craftsmanship, there were days – like, most days – when the constraints of time and deadline didn’t allow it. Eventually, I figured out there was no such thing as perfect writing, but if my story was good enough, people would keep reading anyway. That’s a great thing for a novelist to keep in mind as he’s fighting his way through 90,000 words, and it’s freeing to know not all of them have to be perfect.

As for what I had to overcome as a journalist, that’s pretty simple: The fear of getting fired. As a reporter, I knew that if I made anything up, I’d be out of a job pretty fast. Making up stuff was a total anathema to me. So nearly everything from FACES OF THE GONE is the product of my experience rather than my imagination – it’s stuff I saw, heard or experienced firsthand that I gave only the slightest fictional twist. It’s only in books two and three that I finally gave myself a little more latitude to use my imagination. I’ve finally realized it doesn’t have to have been pulled straight from my reporter’s notebook to still feel authentic.
Q: The quadruple homicide that occurs in FACES OF THE GONE is based on a story you covered as a journalist. Did you know right away that you wanted to use it as the plot line for novel? Were you considering fiction writing at the time? And was that real-life case solved?

Brad: I had been writing fiction for a while, though it was fiction of a different sort – a coming-of-age tale set in Youngstown, Ohio (also known as Jen Forbus Country). I had just finished that manuscript maybe three or four weeks before covering the quadruple homicide that became the inspiration for FACES OF THE GONE. And while I didn’t quite walk away from the scene of that crime with a light bulb over my ahead – “Aha! There’s the setting for my first novel!” – I was definitely looking for something new to write. It was probably a few months later that it had gelled enough in my brain that I began writing it.

As to the real-life crime, it remained a true mystery for about a year. Then the cops charged some guy who had just gone to jail for another murder. The cops claimed that once he was behind bars – and thus no longer a threat – witnesses started coming forward. The cynical side of me wonders if the cops didn’t just pin it on this guy just to be able to close the case. We’ll never know because the case never went to trial. There was a paucity of evidence in the first place and since the guy was already locked up for killing someone else, there was never huge pressure to prosecute. Unfortunately, that’s how inner-city justice goes sometimes.
Q: Covering real-life crime cases like the quadruple homicide, was crime fiction a natural fit then for you or did you always have aspirations toward crime fiction and the event gave you the idea you needed?

Brad: I read crime fiction and thrillers as a kid – starting with Hardy Boys and graduating to John D. MacDonald – and I always harbored the aspiration of writing mysteries. I suppose I imagined that’s what I would do in semi-retirement – you know, when I was 55 or 60 and the kids were through college and the mortgage was paid off and I finally started doing what I really wanted to do with my life, you know? Well, I had gotten an agent interested in my first manuscript, the Youngstown one, when I showed her the first three chapters of what is now FACES OF THE GONE. They were obviously very different books. And my agent, Jeanne Forte Dube, asked me point blank, “Which one of these is you? Who do you want to be as a writer?” And I blurted out, “The next Harlan Coben.” And she said, “Okay, so go finish that mystery.” With hindsight, I guess I can say this was always what I wanted to be doing. And I can even tell a narrative that makes it seem like I took a straight line getting here. But, in reality, there were a lot of twists and turns, rejections and dead ends – and I wouldn’t trade any of them.
Q: Now you’re a full-time writer/full-time dad. What do you miss most about journalism, now that you’re not in the thick of it all the time? And what do you miss least?

Brad: I miss the rush of deadline. Oh, yeah, I miss it badly. There’s just nothing in the world like knowing you’ve got 30 minutes to write 600 words and you’ve got to jam it out. In those wonderful moments, it’s just your madly whirring brain and the screen. And the little filter that normally sits between the brain and the screen – the one that says “is this really the right word?” or “are you sure you couldn’t phrase it better?” or “don’t you need to empty the garbage?” – that filter is just gone. And you… just… write. It’s a total high.

What I miss the least? Being forced to pull my punches on a story. On any investigative piece, the best 25 to 50 percent of what you know is probably never going to get in the paper because you simply can’t nail it down with enough certainty to get it past the editors and lawyers whose job it is to vet your copy. And the storyteller inside of you is just dying to get that stuff out – because it’s great stuff! – but the journalist in you has to pull it back, simply because it’s not backed by three sources and two documents proving it to be true. Now I just get to be a pure storyteller, which is a lot more freeing.
Q: So, FACES OF THE GONE. Wow! What a way to debut! How long did it take you to write this novel?

Brad: I wrote FACES OF THE GONE in dribs and drabs over the course of a year and a half or so. I was working full-time, of course, and I wasn’t the most disciplined writer. So I’d write for a month and then get busy at work and drop it. Then I’d write another month and suddenly three months would go by without a word. (I would not recommend this as a way to write a novel, by the way). By the time I got to the end – in a month-long, 30,000 word burst – I had to go back and do a lot of cleaning, simply because there was some unevenness that resulted in all the stopping and starting. Carter Ross installments Nos. 2 and 3 were basically written in about three months each, writing every single day. I’ve discovered that, at least for me, that’s a much, much better way to write.
Q: There are some pretty heavy themes underlying FACES OF THE GONE that deal with how people treat some social groups. And you do a flat-out amazing job of depicting that through the characters, their behaviors, etc. Is that something you encountered yourself while working as a journalist or does that come from somewhere else? It has obviously impacted you; I can’t imagine being able to write that powerfully if it hadn’t.

Brad: As a typical white person, raised in a lily-white suburb, I didn’t understand why black people were always so hung up on race. I mean, why did they feel the need to talk about it so much? Why couldn’t they just get over it already? Then, as a reporter, I finally found myself in a place where I was the minority – the neighborhoods of Newark, New Jersey, walking through places where they simply referred to me as “the white guy,” because I was going to be the only one coming through that month (well, unless you count cops). Suddenly, I understood what it meant to be defined by my race. And, lo and behold, I found myself wanting to talk about it a lot. One of the real ironies of political correctness is that it’s actually stunted the national dialogue on race in a lot of ways, because it’s left people – white people in particular – afraid of saying “the wrong thing.” I enjoyed writing a book that’s at least not afraid to have the conversation.
Q: Building on that question, Carter Ross, your protagonist in FACES OF THE GONE, does a lot of actual physical investigating in the novel. Is this common for an investigative reporter – to be out in the projects, meeting with gang members, etc.? Or did you invoke some literary license?

Brad: There’s certainly some literary license taken. For example, the notion of the lone wolf journalist – going off on his own direction, away from the other reporters at his paper, away from the cops, solving the crime on his own – makes for good reading but is probably a bit removed from reality. That said, the way Carter goes about finding the truth in FACES OF THE GONE is very true to life, or at least true to how I did it as a reporter. I was constantly out on the streets, in the projects, talking with anyone – be it grandmas or gangbangers – who might be able to help my story. I suppose there are some reporters who spend more time in the office, but I was never one of them, and neither is Carter.
Q: Alright, so there’s this very serious element to FACES OF THE GONE, but there’s also a lot of hysterically funny humor. Does that come naturally for you? Or is it something you have to work at and practice? And given the series element of the novel, how do you find the right balance?

Brad: To me, a book should be like a good friend. I don’t want a book that’s brooding and serious all the time anymore than I’d want a friend who is that way. I appreciate friends who can be serious and silly, who can make me think and make me laugh, who can tell a good story and tell a good joke. Above all, I like books (and friends) who are fun. So I guess I try to be mindful of that when I’m writing. There’s a balance, of course. I guess my general rule is that, every so often, I try to throw in a scene that – while it marginally bumps the plot forward – is mostly just there for comic relief. I mean, we read these books for fun, right?

That's certainly why I read them!

Q: You’ve lived in Connecticut, New Jersey and now Virginia. Having been born and raised in Northeast Ohio, I have to ask: How did the 1987 Browns team make it into the plot of FACES OF THE GONE?

Brad: Embarrassing childhood confessions time: When I was a kid, I guess I must not have had a lot of friends, because I would go into the back yard and play pretend football by myself. I’d throw the ball to myself, tackle myself, keep imaginary statistics, the whole thing. One of my favorite pretend squads was that Browns team with Kevin Mack (the power runner) and Earnest Byner (the speed runner). Whenever I did a running play up the middle, I was Mack; when I took it around the corner, I was Byner. So there I was, twenty years later, writing my book – I don’t have a lot of friends now either, by the way – and I needed to invent a gang for Carter. There’s a real life gang in Newark called the Brick City Brims. I didn’t want to risk slandering the Brims, so I fictionalized them as the Brick City Browns. The retro uniforms just followed naturally from there.
I shared with Brad that I loved this team as well. I was a Browns fanatic at the time. My favorite players from that team were defensive backs, though: Frank Minnifield and Hanford Dixon. That made a real connection for me in the book.

Q: You’re guaranteed that if you interview at Jen’s Book Thoughts, you have to have a question about your characters and their development, because for me – as a reader – character makes or breaks a book. Character definitely made FACES OF THE GONE. Are these characters complete figments of your imagination? Or have they evolved from people you’ve known?

Brad: Well, let’s see, Carter Ross is a stiff white guy from the suburbs who plunges into the mean inner-city and… hey, look at that! I am, too! So there’s definitely a lot of me in Carter and vice versa. On the other end of the spectrum, the city editor – smokin’ hot Tina Thompson – is a total fabrication. My last city editor at The Star-Ledger was a middle-aged guy Bruno. He was sorta cute, but definitely not smokin’ hot like Tina.
Q: FACES OF THE GONE is told through the first person account of Carter. And we get to see what Carter thinks Tina is all about. But then through Tina’s actions, we see that Carter may be mis-perceiving things a bit. It makes for some excellent laughs but it’s also a pretty interesting look at gender relations. Was that a specific goal with these characters or did it just kind of work out nicely?
Brad: When you’re writing a series, some story arcs are limited to the span of one book – namely, the whodunit stuff. But then there are also going to be some stories that develop across multiple books. The relationship between Tina and Carter is one of those. I don’t think Carter even begins to understand what makes Tina tick until Book 3. And who only knows how long it’s going to take him to figure out what to do about it? When it comes to how those characters react to each other, I’m not sure anything I do is 100 percent intentional. I feel like I start with a strong understanding of who each character is. And then with each scene I write, I constantly ask myself: Knowing Carter (or Tina) as well as I do, is that how he/she would react to that scenario? If I ended up making any interesting commentary on gender relations in the course of doing that, I assure you it was very much by accident.
Q: The FACES OF THE GONE book jacket says you’re working on the next Carter Ross adventure. Is that now in the bag or are you still at work on that? Any thoughts about writing something away from Carter or do you want to stick solely with him for the time being?
Brad: Yep, numbers two and three are in the bag. I’ll probably stick to Carter – sorry, are you tired of him already? – and keep writing him until someone begs me to stop. The more I write him, the more I enjoy the time we spend together. There may be some other projects along the way – I’d like to try Young Adult, for example, and as a journalist I never rule out non-fiction – but Carter has a special place in my heart.
Note: I am definitely NOT tired of Carter. I can't wait for the next book!

Q: Last question, being dad to two small children, what are you all reading these days? Do they have any favorite books that you now know by heart because you’ve read them so many times? And are they at a stage where they tell people what their dad does? How do they describe your job?

Brad: Every night in the Parks household ends with story time – I would consider it child abuse to do anything else – so, yes, there are a number of books where everyone has the text memorized and we only turn the pages because it seems like the thing to do. My daughter just turned one, so she isn’t quite talking yet. My son is two and a half. When you ask him what Daddy does for work, he replies “Daddy is auffer. He writes books.”
And there you have it, Brad Parks the "auffer." You can check out more about Brad at his website. I encourage you to sign up for his newsletter as it is pure entertainment! I love it. And definitely take a couple minutes to watch this video of Brad. Good stuff. You can check out his tour schedule. He's all over New Jersey for the next couple days, so if you're in that part of the country, he may be near you for a signing.

I posted on Facebook and Twitter about this guest post Brad did at the Do Some Damage blog. If you missed it, I strongly encourage you to check it out. Hysterical! LOVED. IT. And I'm NOT mocking Brad, I swear!

I hope you enjoyed this little visit with Brad. My thanks to Brad for putting up with me and my nosey questions! So excited to have him here. I'm no prognosticator, but if I had to put my money on the next big thing, it would be Brad Parks.

Happy Reading!


Book Dragon December 11, 2009 at 4:50 PM  

I did enjoy "this little visit with Brad" and added The Faces of the Gone to my wish list!

Brad Parks December 11, 2009 at 5:51 PM  

Thanks ever so kindly, Book Dragon. Hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it (most of the time).

Pop Culture Nerd December 12, 2009 at 1:32 AM  

Oh, what a fun conversation. I just asked Brad for an interview, too, but yours is so thorough, Jen, I'll have to rack my brains to think of anything else to ask him.

Maybe what his shoe size is. Or favorite Bee Gees song. This is gonna be hard...

Jen Forbus December 12, 2009 at 8:03 AM  

Book Dragon - so glad you stopped by and left a comment. Hope you enjoy FACES OF THE GONE as much as I did!

Jen Forbus December 12, 2009 at 8:04 AM  

PCN - awesome! Can't wait to see your interview. Your questions are always fantastic. We should combine and do a nerd tag-team interview some time!! ;)

Naomi Johnson December 12, 2009 at 10:56 AM  

Your usual bang-up job, girl. This book is getting a lot of buzz, and here you are, right in on the ground floor of awareness.

le0pard13 December 13, 2009 at 5:12 PM  

Great interview, Jen. You're becoming quite the interviewer. Thanks for this.

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